‘This dark delicious operetta is a perfect palate cleanse from a dysfunctional holiday.’
Be careful what you wish for. That’s the tagline for the new musical movie adaptation of Into the Woods. If you are yearning for a new musical that is dark, complicated, and funny, as well as beautifully constructed, and at times more than mildly creepy, Into the Woods by director Rob Marshall (of Chicago and NINE) is the ultimate in wish fulfillment.
This, my friends, is NOT the world of happily ever after. It also isn’t a “fun for the whole Disney family” kind of film, unless you’ve all survived something together in the way of loss and struggle. Given the screenplay makes use of the original tales, in all their gruesome glory, It is especially inappropriate for children under 8 years old. However, for music-loving adults who dig their Grimm grim, and have a twisted sense of humor, cinematically, it’s the very thing you never knew you wanted or needed.
Before there was Once Upon A Time, or the movies Ella Enchanted and Enchanted, there was the stage musical Into the Woods, a mashed-up collection of Brothers Grimm fairy tales conceived and constructed by composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine. It debuted in 1986 and became a big hit, winning several Tony Awards including best score and best book its first time out, and subsequent productions went on to win more Tony, Olivier, and Drama Desk awards. Some might argue the play of Into the Woods had a significant influence in ushering in the renewed or heightened interest in fairy tales that has led to the burgeoning representation in novels, art, TV and film.
This, you see, was ‘once upon a time’ in the 80’s, back when stage plays started fashion, not like today’s derivative Shreks, Beauty and the Beasts, and what have you. Much of the musicals that make it to Broadway now are reiterations of existing films. It was also back at the heights of a time when we in the arts fields were losing friends and loved ones on a daily basis to AIDS, and there’s an apocalyptic quality present in Into the Woods that reflects the pervasive atmosphere of cultural loss of that crisis.
A well-known collection of archetypal characters including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack of the Beanstalk fame, (Daniel Huttlestone), a witch bent on revenge (Meryl Streep), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), all figure in a story revolving around a childless baker and his wife, (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are attempting to undo a curse the witch put upon them and their house.
They all meet and experience life-altering events when they go into the woods. All the characters want something, so we follow them through their wishes, their opportunity to make their desires reality, and how that turns out for each of them. We follow the various tales as they weave in and out of each other’s stories, but the baker and his wife are the center where all things collide, and Emily Blunt is the true star of the film, and gives it its heart.
The fact that she has said in interviews she is terrified of singing in front of people makes her success in the role all the more impressive. James Corden as her husband and helpmate who must find courage to do what must be done, shows nuances in physical expression of his insecurities that put us squarely into his corner, even when he makes mistakes that should permanently alienate the audience.
Meryl Streep as the witch gets to be the constant voice of truth, however unkind or harsh it may be, and gleefully uses her expertise to draw every eye to her while onscreen, as no doubt her character would want. Anna Kendrick is great as Cinderella, although she’s rather changeable, unsure, and a bundle of insecurities, showing exactly the qualities a young woman who has suffered emotional abuse from her stepmother for years would likely exhibit.
Secondary characters played by Johnny Depp and Chris Pine make their moments on film indelible for two very different reasons. Depp plays Wolf as part of the Riding Hood story, but rises the creep factor to a startling high by embodying what amounts to a pedophile with whiskers. His singing voice is not up to the quality of most other actors, but it matters little since his character is less languid lothario more a carnival barker.
Pine absolutely steals the movie during Sondheim’s showstopper “Agony”, where he sings with Rapunzel’s prince and competes for who is put through more not getting the love they want in instant gratification. Scenery chewing has never worked so well.
It is also necessary to give props to the amazing music and congratulate all the actors who took on very complicated songs and made them their own. Musicians will recognize just how hard the intervals and rhythmic structures are, but the general public should be made aware as well, so they know just how much work it was to get it right.
As hinted at the beginning of this review, the last third of this movie turns decidedly toward the bleak, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining overall. It does make it a tougher watch for those who expect their fairy tales to end on an upswing wrapped up with neatly tied bows. As in the original stage play, Sondheim and Lapine were saying life isn’t tidy, and sometimes things don’t go as planned, but that doesn’t mean we should stop wishing.
The holidays are hard for some who have more challenging family dysfunction, and, by the end of its 124 minutes, this operetta serves up a skewed alternative family of sorts, reminding those who find themselves pummeled by the end of the season, after the dust settles, there are ways to pick up and move forward by building something from what actually works.
This is true in the holidays but more largely in life, and that is the gift this dark fairy tale, however cautionary and apocalyptic, provides to those who need or want it. It is a reminder that finding optimism in a new journey is the only way forward. A dark message, but one worth heeding.